2020 Canadian Atheist Awards – Person of the year

The final award in the 2020 Canadian Atheist Awards is “Person of the year”. This award goes to the person who had the greatest positive impact in Canadian secularism, humanism, atheism and freethought in 2019.

[2020 Canadian Atheist awards poster]

If you’d like to review the list of nominees before finding out the results, check out the nominations announcement.

Before we begin, I’d like to offer congratulations to all the nominees. Although there can only be one final winner, every nominee earned their spot. Every one of them has worked heroically to advance the cause of humanism, secularism, freethought, or atheism in Canada. Every one of them is a winner in their own right.

The criteria for this category is broad. Nominees – and the winner – don’t necessarily need to be Canadian, though that will certainly help their chances. But they do need to have done something over the course of the year to advance the cause of atheism, humanism, secularism, or freethought in Canada. It could be a single big act, or it could be a pattern of action throughout the year. They don’t need to have acted explicitly in the name of atheism, humanism, secularism, or freethought, though, again, that will help their chances.

The people nominated have earned the right to use the following images or any other method they prefer to declare themselves nominees for the 2020 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:

And so, with no further ado, let us get to the awarding of the 2020 Canadian Atheist Person of the year.

Runners-up

And the runners-up are:

Runner-up: Olivier Bernard

[Photo of Olivier Bernard]
Olivier Bernard, Le Pharmachien/The Pharmafist

Olivier Bernard is a pharmacist, and the publisher of Le Pharmachien/The Pharmafist blog, which publishes articles and comics about pseudoscientific health claims – everything from fad diets, to “electrosensitivity”, to acupuncture. He’s also the host of the ICI Explora series Les aventures du Pharmachien, which, if the teaser is anything to go by, must be awesome:

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/192339017]

Okay, so it’s already obvious why Bernard is on our radar… but what specifically did he do to earn a nomination for person of the year?

Well, this past year, Bernard actually won the 2019 John Maddox Award, an award given to individuals who promote science and evidence, advancing the public discussion around difficult topics despite challenges or hostility. But it’s not that he won the award that’s of interest, but rather why he won the award. And to explain that, we have to go back to mid-2018.

In May of 2018, a petition was submitted to the National Assembly of Québec asking them to allow doctors to prescribe vitamin C injections for chemotherapy patients. Now it’s not entirely clear what the point of the petition was – it’s not illegal for doctors to prescribe vitamin C injections. It got 70,000 signatures, but ultimately went nowhere when the then-Liberal government dismissed it, due to the lack of scientific evidence. At the time, Bernard wrote an article explaining, patiently and in great detail, why vitamin C injections have unclear benefits and many potential risks, and thus should only be prescribed rarely or not at all – at least until much more research is done.

Then in January of 2019, a new petition was created. This one went further, saying vitamin C injections should be covered under the province’s health plan. This petition got 120,000 signatures, and unlike the previous government, the CAQ was taking it seriously. So Bernard rolled up his sleeves, and started reaching out to politicians and the media.

It wasn’t long before he started seeing threats, harassment, doxxing, and worse. Even his wife was targeted. At that point, no scientific organization or experts were publicly standing with him. He was fighting this battle alone, and it was taking a toll.

But then everything turned around.

A number of prominent experts in the field finally rallied to Bernard’s defence, and soon after, the petition was dropped.

But that was just the beginning.

In response to the targeted harassment Bernard received, a government task force and an inter-disciplinary committee made up of representatives of professional associations were created, both tasked specifically with protecting scientists who speak publicly about controversial topics. Also, the Québec National Institute for Excellence in Health and Social Services decided to write an official report about the clinical relevance of vitamin C injections for cancer patients… which was exactly what Bernard was hoping for from the beginning.

Any scientist that is willing to stand up publicly for science and evidence – particularly in medicine – deserves credit. One who continues to stand up, even in the face of threats and harassment, deserves special commendation.

For his courage in standing up for evidence-based medicine in the face of a targeted harassment campaign, Olivier Bernard has earned a nomination for person of the year.

Runner-up: David Eggen

[Photo of David Eggen]
David Eggen

David Eggen is the (now-)former Minister of Education for Alberta, during Rachel Notley’s NDP government. So what earned Eggen a spot among the nominees for the Canadian Atheist person of the year?

With Eggen, it wasn’t so much a single act as it was an entire career of standing up for secular education in Alberta during his tenure as education minister. There are at least a half-dozen stories that illustrate why he’s worthy of this nomination.

It’s important to understand the context that Eggen was working in. The education system in Alberta is flush with Christian entanglement. It’s one of the three provinces with a separate (Catholic) school system, so of course you can expect the usual problems there. But even in the secular public school system, several schools continue to start the day with the Lord’s Prayer. And don’t even get started on the private schools and homeschooling associations in Alberta. (In fact, last year, Paul Ens was nominated because of his efforts to uncover the influence of creationists in the Alberta Home Education Association.)

In fact, let’s start with the homeschooling problem. Back in 2017, a Christian homeschooling association was caught playing games with public funds, shuffling them between organizations and using them to purchase liquor and other nonsense. The province decided to audit the organization, but the organization stonewalled them at every turn. Eggen’s response? He shut ’em down. Later, in order not to cause too much disruption to the ~3,500 students served by the organization, he arranged a “settlement”… which was really a complete win for the government, but it allowed the organization to save face. Along the way, in addition to calling out the organization’s dodgy financial behaviour, Eggen made a point of criticizing the quality of education they provided as well.

Most of Eggen’s struggles against Christian entrenchment in Alberta’s education system have to do with gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Not long after he became Minister, he started getting complaints that schools were either denying students’ requests to form GSAs, or dragging their feet or otherwise making the students jump through hoops in order to delay them until it was too late (that is, the students who wanted to form the GSA graduated). Eggen told schools that if a student wanted to create a GSA, they should allow it.

But wouldn’t you know, some religious schools just had to test Eggen’s resolve. Did Eggen back down?

Fuck no.

I never actually heard the conclusion of the story, but it sure seems like Coldwell backed down one way or the other.

One last example of Eggen standing up for secular and humanist principles: At the end of 2018 and the start of 2019, news broke about several public Catholic districts enforcing “employment agreements” on their teachers. You can probably guess the content of those “agreements”. This would be the perfect place for the usual class of spineless politician to shrug and say, hey, Catholic schools gonna Catholic. But Eggen? This is a direct quote: that’s definitely not on.

For standing up for LGBTQ students and teachers, and for always displaying integrity when dealing with entrenched Christian privilege in the education system, David Eggen has earned a nomination for person of the year.

Runner-up: Amira Elghawaby

[Photo of Amira Elghawaby]
Amira Elghawaby

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network had another great year, unmasking Nazis and generally fighting hate and hate groups across Canada. (They must have had a great year, because they earned themselves a hit piece from the Manning Foundation.) We’ve honoured multiple members of CAHN’s board over the years. This year, it’s Amira Elghawaby’s turn.

Now, Elghawaby would probably have been able to earn a nomination just on her CAHN cred, but that’s not actually why she’s nominated. Her name’s on the list this year on her own merit. Elghawaby is a journalist and human rights advocate, and this year she was kept particularly busy by a story that also kept Canadian Atheist busy: Québec’s religious accessories ban.

Few journalists have been as devoted to the story as Elghawaby, probably because the ban is personal to her (she wears a hijab). And it’s probably because the ban is personal to her that she is able to write about it in such a personal way. One of the best pieces on the ban this year was a collaboration between her and fellow CAHN member Bernie Farber (a previous person of the year nominee himself). Titled “Quebec’s Bill 21 shows why we fear the tyranny of the majority”, the piece is a Muslim and Jew pointing out the dark side of populism… and it’s kinda hard to ignore that kind of personal authority on the topic.

Elghawaby wasn’t afraid to identify the source of the problem, either. In a piece for Canadaland, she pointed a finger squarely at Québec’s media, and even called out Quebecor by name.

But if there was one thing that really stood out for me this year, it was a talk she gave at TEDxOttawa last year (eventually posted online . In the talk, Elghawaby reminds us why multiculturalism is so important, and does so in an immensely personal way, with heart and pathos that often gets forgotten in public discussions.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP_ptjP1eKo]

It’s so rare to find people shamelessly standing up for multiculturalism without reservation these days. It’s even more rare to find someone who can so effectively frame it in such a humanistic and profound way.

For being one of the best and most humanistic voices for multiculturalism and against intolerance and hate in 2019, Amira Elghawaby is recognized as one of the most impactful persons of the year.

Runner-up: Bethany Lindsay

[Photo of Bethany Lindsay]
Bethany Lindsay

Of all the nominees this year, this one is probably the least surprising. Bethany Lindsay was almost nominated last year (or rather, she would have been nominated, had I not screwed up). And everything that she was almost nominated for last year, she just kept on doin’ this year. Her nomination was as near to inevitable as you can get.

Okay, but let’s back up and go over why her nomination was so inevitable in the first place.

Bethany Lindsay is a journalist whose primary beat is British Columbia. What makes her particularly interesting, though, is that she has a background in biology and… wow… she uses it! You can almost tell if a CBC piece about pseudoscience is by without even looking at the byline: If the piece, after telling the main story, makes a point of stating flatly and without dodges or qualifications or bullshit both-sides-ism that the pseudoscience in question (whether it’s homeopathy, or chiropractic, or whatever) is pseudoscience, and even makes a point of linking to other stories about the harm it causes, or the absurdity linked to it (like vaccine denialism, or whatever)… you’re probably reading a Bethany Lindsay piece.

But as great as Lindsay’s style is, the substance of her journalism is where things get really awesome. Lindsay has many domains of interest – she’s as likely to be reporting on the Wet’suwet’en pipeline protests as on what’s happening in BC’s criminal courts – but the one that’s of particular interest to us is her interest in heath care… and particularly, on the prevalence of pseudoscience in health care. Lindsay has done extensive investigations, and extensive reporting, on the foibles of the various, government-recognized pseudosciences in BC. It was Lindsay who reported on the BC naturopath who dosed a kid with homeopathic rabies virus because she thought he was a werewolf. It was also she who reported on the ridiculous claims being made by the province’s chiropractors.

Now, if nothing else had happened other than that she had reported on all these things, that would be justification enough to honour her with a nomination. But what’s truly amazing about Lindsay’s journalism is that it’s had impact. The BC government is, as I write this, seriously considering reorganizing its entire system of professional health colleges, and may do so in a way that drops recognition of such currently-recognized pseudosciences like naturopathy, chiropractic, and traditional Chinese “medicine”. And there’s no doubt that if that happens, it will have happened in large part because of Lindsay’s tireless investigative reporting. That’s just freakin’ amazing.

Even if that doesn’t happen – even if the province decides to continue giving official credence to pseudoscientific nonsense – that won’t change the fact that Lindsay’s reporting has already had enormous impact in BC’s health care system. She has already forced both the naturopathic and chiropractic colleges to clean up their act, and crack down on some of the more dangerous “health claims” being made by their members.

And I have no doubt that she will continue to do so much more in 2020 and beyond.

For her tireless investigative journalism, bringing skepticism and scientific rigour to reporting about pseudoscience in British Columbia’s health care system, Bethany Lindsay is not only my #1 favourite journalist at the CBC, she’s also earned a nomination as a Canadian Atheist person of the year.

Runner-up: Byron Wood

[Photo of Byron Wood]
Byron Wood

If you look at the list of nominees, you’ll see multiple award-winning journalists and activists, provincial ministers, heads of major humanist organizations… and then this odd name out: “Byron Wood”. “Byron Wood? Who the fuck is Byron Wood?”

Let me tell you who the fuck Byron Wood is. And you might want to sit down for this, because you’re about to mean a real-life hero.

Byron Wood became a registered nurse in BC in 2009. He eventually ended up working as a mental health nurse in a community mental health clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which is… pretty notorious for its high levels of poverty and associated problems: drug use, mental health issues, and so on. Having chosen this profession and this place to practise it, already it’s pretty clear why Wood deserves the “hero” title… but keep reading.

Like most real-life heroes, Wood wasn’t perfect. He had a problem; a problem with substance abuse. By all accounts, it sounds like he never once used while working, or showed up to work under the influence. He was not a regular user of drugs, or a habitual heavy drinker. But when he took time off or went on vacations, Wood had a problem with binge drinking, and with street drugs. I don’t have all the details of his personal story, but it sounds like he was able to keep his problem completely secret from his employer – it never affected his work – right up until an incident in 2013.

Wood had been on vacation and had, as usual, drank to excess, and apparently used heroin. As his vacation ended, Wood stopped all this, so he’d be clean when he went back to work. Unfortunately, this time things went wrong, and he started experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. He ended up having a psychotic episode in a walk-in clinic. The police got involved, and Wood was involuntarily committed to a hospital. During that time, Wood voluntarily changed his nursing status from practising to non-practising, so he could get some real help.

So far, this is difficult story, but one that is unfolding as it should: as soon as Wood’s problem was no longer under his control, he started getting help. But this is the point where things turned absolutely Kafka-esque for Wood.

Wood has since written about what it was like to become marked as “an addict” working in a safety-sensitive occupation. That link comes with a content warning. It’s horrible, and dehumanizing. You’d think that the health care sector would be hip with modern scientific understandings of the nature of addiction, and would be at least somewhat compassionate with how it handles treatment. But no, apparently most health care professionals are still stuck with 19th century puritan attitudes about addiction. And about addicts.

Wood was assigned to a doctor who put him in a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous-style program, including mandatory meeting attendance, and a five-week residential treatment program. At first, Wood complied with the program, completing the five-week stay and attending all the meetings. But… it wasn’t really working for him, and if you know anything about 12-step programs, you can probably guess why. At their core, 12-step programs rely on people getting support and strength from “a higher power”… which doesn’t really make any sense to atheists. AA proponents point out that the wording technically says “a higher power as you understand it”, so if you’re an atheist, then just don’t call it “God”. Call it “Steve”. Yeah. Yeah, put all your trust in the omnipotent and all-loving source of goodness and strength: Steve. When you pray, you’re not praying to God, you’re praying to Steve! There you go atheists, fixed it for you.

Only, obviously not. More importantly, there are numerous modern, evidence-based treatment options that actually target the psychological and physiological causes of dependence, rather than just telling the patient they’re losers if they don’t have the “willpower” to fight the addiction on their own. And, unlike 12-step programs, they have quality experimental data showing they really work.

Wood went to his doctor, said that the 12 steps weren’t working for him, and pointed to these other options as potential alternatives. He was not only dismissed, he was insulted for his temerity at wanting some input in his own treatment. Wood tried filing complaints with his professional college, his union, and his employer, but was repeatedly summarily dismissed. One of the dismissals in particular is pure circular brilliance: Wood files a complaint that the treatment standards are archaic, don’t include modern or secular options, and don’t work for atheists, and gets the response… “but they’re the standards”.

So, finally, in 2015, Wood put his foot down. He refused to attend the useless, mandatory AA meetings. He was fired.

If this were a story about an ordinary person, it would probably end there. Actually, it probably would have ended even before then – most people would just buckle down and keep going to the useless AA meetings rather than risk their job.

Instead, Wood took the fight to the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

What happened next was incredible. Just about every big name associated with humanism and human rights stepped to Wood’s side: The BC Humanist Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Experts from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research went on the record saying that AA isn’t all that effective. And Vancouver Coastal Health and the BC Nurses’ Union – the respondents in the complaint – fell over themselves claiming that Wood had never mentioned that his objection was religious. (Which was really irrelevant. Wood’s complaint really hinged on efficacy and the availability of better options.) The BC Human Rights Tribunal refused to dismiss the complaint, specifically because the 12-step program isn’t for atheists.

Well, it took years, as these things often do, but finally, just this past December, a settlement was reached. At least in Vancouver, atheists will no longer be forced into 12-step programs for addiction treatment. While the ruling technically only applies to Vancouver Coastal Health, it sets a precedent that will be relevant across Canada. Indeed, other health care associations will probably be looking to review their policies proactively, which means Wood didn’t just win a fight for atheists in the Vancouver area… he may have indirectly helped atheist health care professionals with substance abuse problems across the country. (As well as non-atheists that AA isn’t working for!)

Byron Wood has cured his substance abuse disorder, and is now healthy and well. I don’t know if he will be able to return to work as a nurse; I’d like to hope if he hasn’t won that fight yet, victory won’t be too long in coming. I want to share this quote he made that I particularly like:

When you’re a medical doctor, and you specialize in only one condition, and the only treatment that you offer for that condition involves God, you shouldn’t be practising medicine.

No other nominee this year has sacrificed as much as Wood has. Wood lost a career, and spent years fighting a heartless system, and – as far as I know – still hasn’t won the right to return to the job he loved. A job all about helping people. He gave it all up to help the next atheist health care professional who has a substance abuse problem. That’s the shit real heroes are made of.

For his enormous personal sacrifices, and for never giving up, during his years-long fight for secular recovery options for substance abuse disorder, Byron Wood has defnitely earned his nomination for person of the year.

… AND THE WINNER… IN THE CATEGORY OF PERSON OF THE YEAR… IS…

< < < drum roll > > >

WINNER: Ian Bushfield

[Banner saying that Ian Bushfield is the 2020 Canadian Atheist person of the year]

The British Columbia Humanist Association had an amazing year in 2019. I’m not even close to the first person to note that. Hell, they’ve had an amazing decade, as they noted themselves when they listed their accomplishments during the 2010s – most of which would also make up the list of the biggest secular, humanist, atheist, or freethought victories across Canada during the period.

Where to even begin? Well, I could start by pointing out that if you look at the other nominees’ stories this year, the BCHA has been directly or indirectly involved in roughly half of them. The BCHA was there for Byron Wood, and signal-boosting the journalism of both Bethany Lindsay and Amira Elghawaby with their concerns about pseudoscience in medicine and Québec’s discriminatory Bill 21 respectively. It’s a similar case with the story of the year. The BCHA has been, by far, the most outspoken and effective advocate for secular, humanist, atheist, and freethought concerns in all of Canada – more effective even than most national organizations.

But okay, let’s get into specifics. Let’s start with an issue that so many Canadian atheist readers claim as their biggest concern: the property-tax-exempt status of churches. Well, in late 2018, the BCHA did a study about religious property tax exemptions in BC: specifically, which municipalities gave religious property exemptions, and of those, which required a public benefits test. Out of 162 municipalities, only 98 bothered to reply, and of those, only 5 didn’t grant religious property tax exemptions. Of those that do, roughly 2⁄3 didn’t include any test for whether there was any public benefit. Not great news, so the BCHA decided to do something about it… and in at least one case, it worked! Back in May, they got Saanich to vote unanimously in favour of moving toward a public benefits test.

I could go on, listing any of a dozen or more victories the BCHA achieved this past year on topics like charity law, a conversion therapy ban, and more. But let’s talk about their biggest accomplishment of 2019.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that public prayers violated the government’s duty to be secular. The problem is that while this ruling applies to all levels of government, the federal and provincial parliaments are exempt because of “parliamentary privilege”, which basically puts them above the law (for good reason, but way out of scope here). So, naturally, most parliaments simply kept on prayin’… because fuck atheists, that’s why. That included the BC legislature.

The BCHA didn’t take this lying down. They enlisted the aid of 57 volunteers, and had them transcribe… every… daily… prayer… said in the BC legislature since 2003 (which is as far back as video records go). 871 prayers. Took ’em six weeks. They then set about analyzing those prayers over the next few months, and found plenty of weirdness, but also an unquestionable Christian bias.

And then they went back to the BC legislature with their data. And… amazingly… the BC legislature changed their rules in response. Granted, it was a small change… but even a small change in the practices of a provincial legislature is no mean feat.

[Photo of Ian Bushfield.]
Ian Bushfield

Okay, so far I’ve only been talking about the BCHA, which, granted, as executive director, Ian Bushfield is ultimately responsible for. But still, there are plenty of other excellent people who could have been nominated. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, for example, was (I believe) the primary author of the BC legislature prayers report. Katie Marshall also stood out this year. So did Ranil Prasad. And so many more. And it’s true, I could have nominated them all – I only didn’t because that would have pit them all against each other on roughly the same merits. (Plus, I want to keep them available for nomination in future years! I have no doubt many will be strong contenders for person of the year next year, or the year after.)

Certainly, a lot of Bushfield’s achievements have involved help… but that’s true for anyone – no one really accomplishes anything worth speaking of truly on their own, something Bushfield himself has pointed out.

But one of the biggest problems facing the Canadian secularist/humanist/atheist/freethought community is the lack of leadership. There’s a lack of organization, a lack of communication, a lack of resources… but all of these are just symptoms of a lack of leadership. I’m not the only person who’s noticed this.

And that is really what makes Ian Bushfield’s activities and accomplishments over the last couple of years so important. Bushfield hasn’t just been managing the BCHA though an ungodly number of major and minor successes. He has been working to build an atheist (and secularist and humanist) community that is effective: strong, able to effect change, and – perhaps most importantly – welcoming to those who haven’t been traditionally given voices.

Oh yes, he’s certainly facing resistance. He spent the first quarter of 2019 fighting back against a campaign of harassment by reactionaries and regressives, culminating in a hit piece in Quillette, believe it or not. But as the results clearly show… he’s winning. And, we’re all winning because of it.

And this is where I highlight yet another accomplishment of the BCHA this year – one that can seem almost trivial on its face, but really represents a paradigm shift in Canadian atheist (secularist, etc.) activism. This year, the BCHA managed to create not one… not two… but three new paid positions… which pretty much made their paid workforce about four times as large as any other secular, humanist, atheist, or freethought organization in Canada.

I think the best way to describe what Bushfield is doing for us all is to use an analogy. Every other other nominee this year has won one or more games for us – some of them major victories, sure – or they have, through their journalism or other work, made it easier for some future challenge to be won. What Ian Bushfield is doing is on a whole other level. He’s not just winning games. (Although, holy fuck, he is. He’s winning lots of games!) He’s changing the nature of the entire sport.

It’s true that our community has been hurting for leadership for many years. But with someone like Ian Bushfield stepping up, I don’t think that’s true any more.

Every nominee this year has been incredible. Every one of them deserves their nomination, and as much recognition they can get for what they’ve done for Canadian atheists. But no other nominee is operating at quite the same level as Ian Bushfield. He’s not just winning battles for Canadian atheists. He’s changing the very nature of atheist activism in Canada.

For his long career as an atheist activist in Canada, and for his leadership, and for the string of victories he has brought to our cause and the amazing team and organization he has brought together and mobilized, for his strong advocacy in welcoming marginalized and otherwise forgotten voices into our movement, and for so, so much more… Ian Bushfield, you are Canadian Atheist’s 2020 person of the year.

Mr. Bushfield has earned the right to use the following images or any other method he prefers to declare himself winner of the 2020 Canadian Atheist Person of the year:

Congratulations to Ian Bushfield. We here at Canadian Atheist are honoured, and lucky, to be able to count you as one of our contributors, and friends.

Summary

I don’t know what it’s like to be one of the nominees or recipients of the Canadian Atheist person of the year award… but awarding it is always a powerful experience for me. Every year I look over the nominees, and what they’ve accomplished, and I am in awe. I don’t consider being an atheist to be anything special – I don’t think it makes me any smarter or more morally upstanding than anyone else. But every year, when I look at these people – the best of our community – it makes me so proud to be able to consider myself as part of the same community as them.

Okay, this ain’t the Oscars or the Grammys. There are no cash prizes – not even a (non-virtual) statuette. There’s certainly no prestige involved. But that doesn’t matter. Even if no one cared about the award – including the recipients – I would still give it every year, just for the sheer delight of diving into the stories of all the amazing people who deserve recognition, only the barest few of which I can ultimately offer a nomination to.

Ultimately, I am the sole and final judge for the nominations and award, and I freely admit that the final decision is heavily tainted by my own opinions and biases. But I do at try to capture the feelings of Canadian Atheist readers. I certainly believe I have done so in this case: Ian Bushfield was the most suggested winner by our readers, via emails, private messages, comments, and so on. If that’s really the will of the community, then I certainly find their decision to be in the best taste, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Here’s to all the nominees! Thank you all for your efforts in 2019. And here’s looking forward to an even better 2020.

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